Hernando County must invest in regional mass transit

The commission shouldn’t be dumping THE Bus, they should be investing in it as a prelude 
to a better regional transit system.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times (2008)

The commission shouldn’t be dumping THE Bus, they should be investing in it as a prelude to a better regional transit system.

This is the juxtaposition of leadership in Hernando County.

Wednesday morning, more than 100 business representatives at a Greater Hernando County Camber of Commerce breakfast heard details about the benefit of a proposed regional mass transit system across Hernando and six other counties.

A day later, the elected leaders of county government put the existing bus service in Hernando County on life support — giving it a year to survive as a reconfigured system the commission hopes to dump on the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority.

Well, at least they didn't kill it.

Yet.

But, the plan is to push the cost of THE Bus out of the county's general fund and into the transportation trust fund, a pool of money generated by property and gasoline taxes. At the current pace of spending, that fund is slated to be exhausted by 2015. The commission's general fund, however, will spend more than it takes in by the end of next year under the current practice of using reserves to balance the budget.

Let's face it, difficult decisions remain for the commission after two days of budget workshops because of a $10.4 million budget shortfall attributed to a continued decline in Hernando County's property values. For now, though, commissioners are avoiding questions about a property tax rate by looking at installing parking meters at county parks, reducing work schedules for employees (or layoffs), and shifting expenses such as THE Bus — the county's much maligned transportation system.

The bus service has come to personify critics' contentions of wasteful spending even though, over the past two years, commissioners raised fares, cut service, and rejected federal aid for new vehicles because they didn't want to commit matching dollars. Running bus routes once every two hours "does not work. It renders THE Bus almost useless,'' said Commissioner David Russell, who offered the TBARTA takeover as an alternative for parking the buses permanently.

It could be a short-lived reprieve.

"If we can't get it to work in a year, it ain't going to work,'' Russell told his fellow commissioners.

That is shortsighted. While Hernando tries CPR on its buses, the rest of the region is engaged in a public dialogue about better mass transit. Hillsborough voters will be asked to consider a sales tax increase to begin a rail system. Pasco County just changed its land use plan for the Wiregrass area of Wesley Chapel in anticipation of a rail stop there and is guiding future growth according to the transit-oriented development of higher residential densities near transportation stops.

In Hernando, they worry about starting a political stampede by even talking about a tentative tax rate that would raise the same money as this year, yet still result in a property tax savings for three-quarters of the single-family home owners in Hernando County.

The commission shouldn't be dumping THE Bus, they should be investing in it as a prelude to a better regional transit system that could include express bus routes running along the Suncoast Parkway and Interstate 75 between Hernando and Tampa and a long-range plan of a commuter trains chugging along the CSX tracks to Brooksville.

Consider the words of Bob Clifford, TBARTA's executive director, and the presenter to the chamber breakfast.

More than five decades ago, the planning for the federal interstate highway system included laments that it was unnecessary, cost too much and could be handled better at the local level. But there is little regret today about the decision to move forward with the national multi-laned highway system. Similar thinking needs to take place now on regional mass transit to ensure a better quality of life, economic prosperity and sustainable growth for future generations.

Unfortunately, there were no commissioners in the audience, though Russell, as a member of TBARTA's governing board, has heard the pitch before. Clifford's commentary was reserved, but mine won't be.

Failing to invest in THE Bus panders to the no-new-tax, government-is-wasteful, the bureaucracy-is-bloated crowd that won't be appeased even though homesteaded property owners in Hernando County pay smaller county property tax bills now than they did 11 years ago. Transit planning goes beyond new parking meters to capture revenue, failing to even debate a gasoline tax increase, or hoping somebody else can turn around a bus system to which the commission has given short shrift.

Investing in transit takes wisdom, foresight and commitment. It takes leadership. Russell, fresh off an uncontested re-election for another four-year term, shouldn't let the role sit vacant.

Hernando County must invest in regional mass transit 06/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 25, 2010 10:03pm]

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